Somewhere in the story of every undocumented student brought to this country as a child, there's a moment of horrible realization: the sudden, painful understanding of why the thought of being stopped by the police sends a shadow of fear skating across their parents' eyes. For most of those kids, that's followed quickly by the realization that they, too, are undocumented — that even though they feel American on the inside, the geography of their birth says otherwise.
It isn't that it's kept a secret from them. It's just that the complexities of adult life — Social Security numbers, immigration status, and the idea of invisible borders between countries — elude the young. Sooner or later, though, everyone has to grow up, and for many undocumented students, that means coming to grips with one of the cruelest quirks of immigration law: that even if you were brought to this country before you could decide whether to come or not, and grew up here, and excelled in school here, and speak English just as fluently or better than you speak Spanish, there is a point where the ladders that lead to better places stop for anyone not born on American soil.
One of those places is affordable access to higher education. Though the Supreme Court has ruled than every child in the U.S. should receive free public schooling regardless of their immigration status, many of the private scholarships and all the federal loans, grants and work-study programs that help millions of young Americans seek an education beyond a high school diploma aren't available for the undocumented students, no matter how good their grades. Even if undocumented students were able to pay out-of-pocket for their tuition — an idea that isn't feasible even for most born-and-raised Americans in an age of sky-high-and-rising education costs — the problem is compounded by the fact that in many states, including Arkansas, undocumented students must pay the out-of-state tuition rate, which can double the tuition at a public university in Arkansas.
These barriers play a big part of why a study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that only 61 percent of undocumented high school graduates go on to college, compared to 76 percent of legal permanent residents, and 71 percent of native-born citizens.
For this story, we talked to four young undocumented Arkansans, and asked them to share their stories via interviews, which we have condensed into narratives. All four have either applied for or received temporary legal residency through the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (see sidebar for more on DACA), but keep in mind that while DACA will keep them from being deported and allow them to legally work, it doesn't give them access to federal student aid and most private scholarships.
All the young people we talked to are hopeful for the eventual passage of the federal DREAM Act, or — better still — comprehensive immigration reform. But hearing these stories, one has to ask: Why are they being punished for something they had no say in?
Attending University of Arkansas at Fort Smith
My family came from Mexico when I was 6. My dad was already here in the United States. He would come and go every few months. My mom just decided to follow him here so the family would be together.
We lived in California for about a year. My uncle already lived here in Arkansas, so he came and talked to my dad and said: "You need to come to Arkansas. There's more work, and the cost of living is less than it is in California." My dad didn't think about it twice. We packed up and came to Waldron, and I started school in the third grade. I didn't know that much English. I could understand some of it, but I couldn't speak it. I got involved in some of the ESL classes and it wasn't until the summer before fifth grade that I actually started to speak it and really understand it.
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